West Virginia State wasn’t without opportunities during its Mountain East Conference home opener Saturday afternoon at University of Charleston Stadium.
Most of those chances, however, were squandered, and when combined with Frostburg State’s big-play passing game, the results certainly didn’t suit the Yellow Jackets.
Graham Walker threw three first-half touchdown passes and the Bobcats were able to keep State at arm’s length the rest of the way, capturing a 34-21 victory.
Bouncing back from an uneven season-opening win against Kentucky Wesleyan in which he threw three interceptions and was sacked five times, Walker completed 9 of 14 passes Saturday for 193 yards, including touchdown strikes of 65 yards to Zae Giles and 21 and 47 yards to Malik Morris as Frostburg (2-0) vaulted into a 21-0 lead in the second quarter.
“We knew we could execute,’’ Walker said. “It just came down to doing what we were coached to do come game day. So we definitely executed today.’’
Walker was on the money when it counted Saturday, as his two second-quarter TD tosses came on third and 17 and third and 5. In the fourth quarter, with the Bobcats up 28-14 and facing fourth and 1 at their own 49, they went for it and Walker converted a quarterback sneak. Three plays later, on third and 8, he took advantage of blown coverage in the secondary to find Giles for a gain of 33 yards to the 15, which set up the first of Malcom Facey’s two short scoring runs.
In fact, four of Walker’s completions went for 65, 21, 47 and 33 yards, accounting for 166 of his 193 passing yards. Complemented by a power running game that nearly featured two 100-yard rushers, Frostburg rode that balance all day long.
“There were mistakes, big mistakes,’’ said West Virginia State coach John Pennington. “We were letting people run free. Third and fourth down, they scored some touchdowns when we had some free runners. You can’t beat a good team like that. We beat ourselves by miscommuncating.’’
The Frostburg ground game was also decent. Gavin Lavat, a 6-foot, 236-pound running back, bulled his way for 100 yards on 21 carries and Facey added 98 yards on a dozen attempts.
State (0-2) had some moments on offense, most of them provided by junior quarterback Donovan Riddick, who threw a pair of touchdown passes to Keedrick Cunningham on plays of 60 and 7 yards and ran 11 yards for another score. Riddick was 14 of 27 in the air for 199 yards and ran 16 times for 22 yards, with 48 yards in losses coming on six sacks.
The Jackets also did some damage against Frostburg’s talented defensive front, with Dant’e Jones picking up 60 yards on 12 carries and Malik Newton 46 yards on 10 totes.
“We felt like the ball was moving a good bit,’’ Pennington said. “We knew their defensive line was good. We rode the two big guys, but [Frostburg] ended up really loading the box, so we were running it with some success and then trying to take shots. We just missed on a couple deep shots that we normally hit on.’’
Down 21-7 to start the second half, State went through a series of promising, but ultimately unproductive situations.
Gerron Fryer picked off a Walker pass, giving the Jackets the ball at their own 44. They earned a first down at the Frostburg 43, but eventually punted. But what a punt. Brennan Schmitt dropped it out of bounds at the Bobcats 4. That proved to be no problem for Frostburg, as Facey ripped off a 39-yard gain off right tackle on the first snap.
A Payton Lunsford sack of Walker later forced the Bobcats to punt, and a Riddick-to-Luke Gadson pass, with a 15-yard facemask penalty tacked on, gave State a first down at the Frostburg 43. That opportunity was wasted, though, by consecutive false start penalties and a 13-yard loss on a sack. Frostburg later blocked a 55-yard field goal try by Martin Ahlstroem.
State’s defense then forced a third straight three-and-out by Frostburg, but punt returner Juwan Branch — running full speed ahead — couldn’t handle a line-drive kick and the ball glanced off his leg and 10 yards downfield, where the Bobcats covered it at the State 36. Four plays later, Facey scored to make it 28-7.
Branch was otherwise effective with six kick returns for 93 yards. Cunningham had three catches for 79 yards and Gadson five for 52 for State. Giles led Frostburg’s receivers, grabbing three balls for 104 yards.
“I just told our staff and our team that we’ve got to be selfish tonight and think what we can do better to make sure we play better,’’ Pennington said. “As a staff, how can we put a plan together where our guys are executing more efficiently. Some things they’ve obviously got to take personally, but I take responsibility, too. I’m the guy who points the thumb [at myself]. So it’s not just them — it’s me, and everybody.’’
State moved two home games to UC Stadium as its field is being fitted with artificial turf and should be ready for homecoming on Oct. 16 against North Carolina-Pembroke.